Liz Phair

Vic, April 29

There seems to be an unwritten rule in Chicago that goes like this: If you are an artist, particularly a musician, you should only appeal to a small, discerning group of fans. When you make it big, those fans will desert (and hate) you, no matter how good your work is. They will hate you even more if you’re an unabashed self-promoter. Female artists seem to be hit hardest by this hate-’em-when-they-make-it-big phenomenon. Veruca Salt’s almost-instant popularity has the band trying desperately to live their success down in order to gain the elusive commodity known as indie credibility. They’ve taken the hard-listening band Hazel on tour with them and limited the number of times MTV can play their “Number One Blind” video. An attempt at control, but too little, too late, probably. The mentality says work hard at your craft, but damn you if you’re successful.

Liz Phair is one of the most prominent victims of this phenomenon. Her short career has been successful (she’s made the cover of Rolling Stone and her first album, Exile in Guyville, topped the 1993 Village Voice poll), but Phair doesn’t play by the rules. She sings candidly about sex and has a self-designed public persona, which, coupled with her legendary stage fright (her private persona?) and her desire for control, makes her an easy indie-rock target.

“Rock is a pedestal sport,” writes Mike Brake in The Sociology of Youth Culture and Youth Subcultures, “as in being a monarch–whenever possible a boy inherits the throne–females are not thought to be the stuff [of] idols….Girls are expected to grovel in the mezzanine while the stud struts his stuff up there….A girl with the audacity to go onstage is always jeered, sneered and leered up to….A guitar in the hands of a man boasts ‘cock’–the same instrument in female hands therefore (to a warped male mind) screams ‘castration.'”

When I saw Liz Phair perform a couple of years ago at Metro, I remember thinking that guitarist Casey Rice and bassist Leroy Bach were jumping around an awful lot. The diminutive Phair, who stood between the two, looked uncomfortable and almost frightened when she should have been the show’s focal point. The ensemble didn’t seem to be working with each other; there were four people onstage playing the same song, but they weren’t a band.

Phair let the guys go with little notice when she canceled a lengthy tour to support Whip-Smart last fall. Stage fright would not let her perform, she’d said. Phair’s subsequent, solo performances on late night television were difficult to watch for that reason. The accompanying house bands didn’t make Phair’s performances any less uncomfortable. During her Tonight Show version of “Supernova,” Phair seemed unable to catch her breath–her vocals trembled, and the song sounded rushed.

At the Vic recently the band was replaced by a living room set. On her right, where Casey Rice once stood, was an overstuffed blue chair. To her left, in Leroy Bach’s place, was a flowered wing chair. And in place of producer Brad Wood’s drum kit was a comfortable-looking couch. Phair stood in front of the set, alone with an electric guitar and a tentative smile on her face. She began the concert with an initially shaky version of the first song from her first album, “6’1″.” As the song continued, Phair gained confidence; by the end she was in control, almost exuberant, and her vocals were right on the mark. The audience, which appeared to be a fifty-fifty mix of thirtysomething ‘XRT listeners and younger fans (in the standing-room-only spots in back), responded enthusiastically.

Phair went on to perform another 20-odd songs. The lack of bass, drums, and Brad Wood’s syncopation left a hole in several of them; the upbeat “Supernova” especially suffered without accompaniment, as did the guitar-hook-laden “Mesmerizing.” But as the night wore on, Phair became more captivating, singing her well-crafted pop songs with what seemed like poignant sincerity (Phair has said that one of the reasons she dislikes touring is that she has to play the same songs, which she is tired of, with forced enthusiasm). During her third song, a slow and arching homage to the Velvet Underground’s “Beginning to See the Light,” Phair’s lilting voice and minimalist guitar made for an intimacy that evoked a picture of what it might have been like when she made her first recording, the four-track demo Girly Sound. Although she didn’t have the bells and whistles that give her songs texture on the records, the essence of the melodies showed through, proving that Phair’s songs–and Phair herself–can stand on their own.

The audience did leer and jeer–mostly the men–during Phair’s more scatological offerings (“I want to be your blow job queen” brought frat-boy cheers). The women, on the other hand, appeared to be singing right along. Phair alternated upbeat and slower songs the way a good film punches up the plot with comic relief just before the audience starts sobbing. Indeed, the slower songs, like “Chopsticks” and “Canary,” lent themselves to the solo format. Phair’s guitar alternated between crisp and distorted, and while she looked at the neck of her guitar a lot, she played with confidence (and even thanked her guitar tech for tuning her guitar). She eventually slowed down to tell a stupid joke over the course of several breaks and developed a sort of loose rapport with the audience. And while sometimes the mammoth set of songs seemed too repetitious, the audience sat there enraptured. Phair, who was poised and well enunciated, had woven a spell–one that had been worked out in several cities prior to this homecoming appearance.

And if there was an ideal crowd for Phair to play in front of, this was it. The show sold out in just four minutes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Dan Silverman.